For the past few years, Wu-Tang Clan rapper Raekwon has leaned heavily on the classic gritty, cinematic sound and aesthetic that first made him a star back in the days when he was an unknown underground artist coming up out of the slums of Shaolin. It’s not like anyone has been complaining. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II was widely considered to be one of the best records of 2009 and his solo follow-up Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang was warmly received. However, you can only return to the same well so many times before it begins to run dry.
Listeners going into Fly International Luxurious Art with the expectation of hearing a collection of intricate myth-making Mafioso flows cut with a series of Kung Fu film vignettes, get ready to be disappointed. It’s just not that kind of record. As the title would suggest, this blustery luxury-rap release brims with the same sort of grandiose production and unrepentant braggadocio best exemplified on the Jay Z and Kanye West collaboration Watch The Throne. The chef is clearly working with an entirely new recipe. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
The biggest issue with the album isn’t in Raekwon’s attempt to go in different directions, but rather in how mired it sometimes becomes in the recent past. Recording for Fly International Luxurious Art was supposedly nearly finished around the beginning of 2013 and was shelved in favor of the Wu-Tang’s reunion effort A Better Tomorrow. As much as that entire record was a major misstep for the entire Clan, it had to especially hurt for Raekwon. The overall sound and aesthetic of rap and hip-hop has moved forward so dramatically in the last two years and he was seemingly left holding the bag.
For all its unintended sonic drawbacks, Fly International Luxurious Art goes a long way to remind everyone of why Raekwon is one of the greatest to ever wield a microphone. His flow is masterful, his lines are sharp, and his verbiage is as dense and intricate as it’s ever been. A$AP Rocky, French Montana, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, and as always Ghostface Killah all show up to make an appearance, but the Chef is at his best when he’s dueling with a surprisingly turned up Snoop Dogg on the track, “1,2 1,2.” It’s too close on the scorecard to declare a winner, but it’s a real thrill to hear two old hands mix it up with the intensity of their much younger selves.
He’s not always serviced in the best manner by some of the producers he’s chosen to work with here—Jerry Wonda, Scram Jones, S1, Scoop Deville—or by the RZA on the last Wu-Tang effort, or by the record-release calendar. But it’s still very clear that Raekwon has a lot to say, and the chops to say it in an interesting way.